The Reformation And How It
Changed The World
It was a dark and stormy night. A young law student walked along the road. CRASH! Lightning struck a tree nearby. The young man fell to the ground in terror, and prayed to St. Anne to save him from the storm. He vowed, if he survived, to become a monk.
After the storm, that young man, Martin Luther, kept his vow, and joined the Augustinian order of monks. The year was 1505. Although Martin Luther appeared to have made a poor life choice, throwing away his promising law career, this choice led him down a path that started a movement. A movement that changed the world.
During his time as a monk, and later as priest and college professor, Luther tried
very hard to work his way to heaven. He was terrified of the wrath of God that was inflicted upon
sinners in purgatory and hell. The more he tried to be perfect, however, the more he realized how
deeply flawed and sinful he was.
Martin Luther was tormented by the guilt of his sins and the fear of God’s judgement
until he understood the Bible’s Gospel message that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the
whole world, and that all who trust in Him have forgiveness and peace with God–as a free gift.
The Catholic Church of Luther’s day taught that God’s forgiveness had to be earned. The church engaged in the practice of selling “indulgences.” People who bought indulgences thought they were buying God’s forgiveness. This infuriated Luther. Forgiveness was a gift given freely by God, not a piece of paper that had to be bought with money! Had the Church rejected the message of the Bible?
To protest the selling of indulgences and other problems in the church, Martin Luther wrote up a list of topics for debate called the 95 Theses. He nailed the list to the door of his church in Wittenberg, Germany. The church doors were the community’s bulletin board, so Luther’s act made quite a splash! Eventually, the 95 Theses were printed and distributed all over Germany. In fact, a copy even made it to the Pope!
For a while, the Pope took little notice of Luther. He had bigger fish to fry, so he
admonished Luther to stop rocking the boat. Luther would not be silenced, however, and in 1520, the Pope excommunicated him, and issued a decree, called a bull, that would label Luther a heretic if he did not take back his controversial teachings within 60 days. For Luther, this was the last straw. He wrote a scathing reply to the Pope’s bull, saying: “As they have excommunicated me for heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand.”
Martin Luther held fast to the truth of the Gospel as he had discovered it in the Bible, and
did not submit, even to the power of the Roman Catholic Church. He did not recant his teachings, and was, therefore declared an official heretic. His writings were ordered to be burned in all the Christian world. But few, if any of Luther’s writings were burned that day in Luther’s home town of Wittenberg. In Wittenberg, books containing the anti-scriptural doctrines of the Catholic Church fed the flames, and Luther himself was said to have burned the Pope’s bull.
This was the last straw for the Pope! He ordered the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles
V, to sign a death warrant for Martin Luther. The emperor, however, decided to wait in order to hear Luther himself at the church council, or diet, to be held in the German city of Worms.
On April 16, 1521, Luther arrived in Worms to speak before the Emperor. At the
council, he was asked if he would defend his teachings, or take them back. Martin Luther asked for time to consider his answer, and was given 24 hours. The next evening, he was once again asked if he would take back his teachings. Luther responded that unless he could be shown through Scripture and sound reasoning that he was wrong, he could not and would not recant anything. “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me!” He said.
After Luther left Worms, the council condemned him as a heretic, and ordered that he, and any of his followers, should be captured or killed on sight.
On the road back to Wittenberg, Luther was very vulnerable. In fact, as he was going through a dense forest, a band of soldiers kidnaped him. How awful! Actually, they were his friends who took him into hiding at Wartburg castle in order to protect him. Martin Luther did not waste the ten months that he spent at Wartburg. While there, he studied the Bible, and translated the New Testament into German.
As Luther was in hiding, things back at Wittenberg were not going so well. The churches there were in turmoil, and some church leaders were taking their reforms much too far. The people wanted Luther to come out of hiding and restore order. Luther accepted their appeals for help. Even though his life was in danger, he came out of hiding and returned to Wittenberg. Luther’s return stabilized the situation, and many religious troublemakers left Wittenberg for towns and cities outside his influence. In Wittenberg, Luther continued to preach and teach at the castle church, and although it took him twelve years, he translated the Old Testament into German, and published the first complete German Bible. Also during his ministry at Wittenberg, Luther wrote the Small Catechism and the Large Catechism, which were meant to teach theology to families and pastors, respectively.
The Emperor was not done with the Lutherans yet! In 1530, he called another council in the German city of Augsburg. The Diet of Augsburg induced Philip Melanchthon, a great friend of Luther, to write the Augsburg confession, which summarized what the Lutherans believed and did not believe. It was such a powerful document, that upon it’s public reading at the Diet, some staunch Catholics began to question the rightness of their position! Even today a church must subscribe to this Augsburg Confession to be considered Lutheran.
Martin Luther’s reformation had far-reaching effects. Indeed, the reformation changed the world. Some changes were not what Luther wanted or intended. The church was now irreparably split into many denominations. Luther had wanted the church to remain united under the truth of God’s word. Also, with the church’s authority severely diminished, the common people began to rebel against other earthly authorities, causing much war and bloodshed which Luther was unable to stop.
The Reformation greatly affected European, and ultimately American, politics. It removed Germany from the overarching influences of the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire, thus laying the foundation for the nation-based political systems of the modern era. Furthermore, almost all of our American founding fathers in the Constitutional Convention were from protestant church bodies, and two of them were Lutherans!
In the culture, the reformation standardized the German language, encouraged education for all, and gave dignity to all kinds of labor, saying that all righteous work could be pleasing to God. Many religious services were traditionally held in Latin. After the reformation, the services were held in the native language of the people, and the people were encouraged to sing in church. The use of instrumentation in the services also increased, and the door was opened for the great German composers and musicians like Bach, Handel, and eventually Beethoven.
Before the reformation, scientific research was rigorously censored by the church. The church had a rigid stance on many scientific issues especially in the field of astronomy. This made new scientific research very difficult. After the reformation, however, science in Protestant countries enjoyed new freedom. The first public schools after the contemporary paradigm were opened during this time as well, and the way was paved for the modern scientific age we now live in. It could maybe even be said that there would have been no Darwin if there had been no Luther!
Theologically, the Reformation exposed the anti-scriptural teachings and practices that had crept into the Church. Lutheran theology returned to the Biblical doctrine of forgiveness as a free gift, given by God, through Christ. Luther also taught that Scripture should be the sole foundation, and ultimate authority for all doctrine, belief, and teaching. Luther was especially careful to point to Jesus Christ as the central focus, and head, of the church.
Indeed, in many ways the reformation changed the world. It changed the church. It changed the political, cultural, and scientific landscapes. It changed music, worship, and theology. The reformation changed many things, but none of it would have mattered if it hadn’t brought the church back to the truth of God’s Word.
Jonathan Schulz, 2017
1. Luther: Echoes of the Hammer, by Susan K. Leigh
2. Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World, by Paul L. Maier
The text in this article is the property of Jonathan Schulz and Creation v. Evolution Debate